In October, the High Streets Development Conference, run by Built Environment Networking, brought together representatives of six British towns, cities and regions – Barnsley, Bolton, Kirklees, Shropshire, Swansea and Wakefield – and built environment professionals working with them to give presentations on how they are reinvigorating their town centres.
Some, such as Barnsley or Shrewsbury in Shropshire, are building on already successful centres; the former has improved its popular market, and the latter has a strong heritage market that attracts visitor footfall. Other areas such as Wakefield are facing a more challenging climate of retail decline. Despite these differences, there were a number of common points among the respondents.
The increase in internet shopping means that a visit to the town centre is no longer a necessity, so regular events are seen as essential to improve footfall. Bolton is aiming to further capitalise on the Iron Man and Iron Kids sporting events already held in the town as well its successful food and drink festival.
Wakefield's Hepworth Gallery draws visitors, but it is still somewhat isolated from the rest of the city. The vacant Rutland Mills site adjacent to the gallery is being developed by City & Provincial Properties to restore the listed in Victorian buildings, which will provide an entertainment and culture offering encouraging visitors to stay in the city for longer; while Swansea is investing in high-end design for its new 3500-capacity indoor events arena. Capitalising on historic assets through restoration and improving access is also important.
Some areas do not have the residential capacity in their centres to create the essential footfall to sustain their economies; Bolton is one local authority investing in central housing developments.
Many towns and smaller cities are built on rivers that were historically used for industrial purposes or have over time been made inaccessible by roads. Bolton Council, Shrewsbury Town Council and other local authorities are aiming to createattractive waterfronts as a place forlocals and visitors to dwell.
A number of locations have the challenge of unattractive train or bus stations or dilapidated buildings around these arrival points; for example, there is an empty theatre next to one of Swansea's main stations. Improving the surroundings and replacing or bringing back into use empty sites around stations can make a great difference to the way locals and visitors feel on arrival. Other areas such as Huddersfield in Kirklees need to improve accessibility and walkability from the station to the town centre.
Delegate questions provided some telling pointers about what issues to look for in the future. It was notable, for instance, that not every location seemed to have robust policies in place to address the following key problems for regeneration projects.
Are local authorities creating the infrastructure for a more sustainable future, in terms of walking, cycling and enabling electric vehicles? Shrewsbury, with its very constrained centre, is already looking at improving routes through the town and the possibility of electric vehicles to take visitors from outlying park-and-ride facilities.
Older people could make significant contributions to town centres if they were able to live or get there easily. Martin Ellerby of residential letting company Placefirst discussed the low-rise urban village housing it is designing for Bolton's town centre, which is intended to be attractive to all generations.
The question of whether a funder would query how one place's offering differs from another's was raised. Would the local demographic support food and drink, leisure and cultural activities in the long run if a large proportion of people there are already struggling to get by?
Do local authorities have measurable success criteria and targets in place? Shropshire is looking at what return the local economy gets on public investment, whether the council receives more business rate income, and increases in employment and apprenticeships.
Time will tell which of these strategies succeed and where opportunities may have been missed. What is not in question, however, is that every local authority with a struggling high street needs to be proactive in rethinking what it offers.
Related competencies include: Management and regeneration of the built environment
Michael Cook MRICS 28 April 2023
Jonathan Fothergill FRICS 24 April 2023
Rachel Fisher 20 April 2023